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Health Information Discover Rush Spring 2009

A Journey Through Time

Although our bodies adapt to meet our changing needs, eventually, time takes a toll on the body. And it's not always for the better.

By middle age, many people are diagnosed with chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Yet researchers at Rush University Medical Center are finding that the severity of these age-related changes is largely the result of lifestyle choices.

“Heart disease and other health issues that we associate with aging aren't inevitable,” says Jack Olson, MD, a geriatrician at Rush. “Making healthy choices can slow some of the effects of time.”

Here are some of the ways time affects the body and what you can do to minimize health problems.


Heart. Over time the heart walls become stiffer and the heart fills with blood more slowly. But contrary to conventional wisdom, cardiac output (the amount of blood pumped by the heart) doesn't diminish as you age — if you take care of yourself. Despite physical changes, an older heart can still function well.

In addition to the usual recommendations for maintaining a healthy heart, such as eating a healthful diet and exercising (at least 30 minutes, four or more times a week), Olson offers the following advice: Reduce stress.

Stress causes the body to release hormones, such as adrenaline, into the bloodstream, which speeds up the heart and can trigger serious heart problems, such as arrhythmias and heart attacks.

To reduce stress, try regular exercise, deep breathing, meditation, yoga or journaling — whatever works for you. Another important part of stress-reduction is maintaining social connections.

“Isolation can be a form of constant, low-level stress,” Olson says.

For help creating a plan to keep your heart healthy as you age, make an appointment with a cardiologist at Rush by calling (888) 352-RUSH (7874).

Kidneys. The kidneys become smaller as cells die off and aren't replaced. Less blood flows through them, they don't filter the blood as well, and they may not remove wastes as efficiently.

To prevent diseases that harm the kidneys, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, Olson recommends maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and not smoking.

Also, whenever possible, avoid taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, because they can damage the kidneys.

Lungs. With age, the muscles used for breathing weaken. The number of air sacs and capillaries in the lungs decreases, resulting in less oxygen being absorbed with each breath.

“The best way to preserve lung function is to not smoke,” Olson says. “Even secondhand smoke can affect lung function and increase your risk for lung disease.” Aside from that, staying fit will help keep your lungs functioning most efficiently.


The body continually forms, breaks down and reforms bone. But with age, the balance changes and we break down more bone than we build. Bones become less dense and more fragile.

Osteoporosis — a condition in which the bones become brittle and break easily — affects both sexes, and men who smoke and postmenopausal women are at higher risk.

To help keep your bones strong and healthy, get plenty of weight-bearing exercise, such as walking; get adequate calcium and vitamin D; and don't smoke. And be sure to get a bone density test by age 65 or earlier if you are at risk.

Tendons and ligaments also change with time as the cells that maintain them become less active. Joints become more restricted and inflexible, and ligaments tear more easily and heal more slowly. Water content in the tendons decreases, causing them to become stiffer and less tolerant to stress. Stretching regularly can help you maintain joint flexibility.

Orthopedic specialists at Rush can help you maintain bone and joint health and function. Call (888) 352-RUSH (7874) to make an appointment.


Muscle mass shrinks as the levels of growth hormone and testosterone, which stimulate muscle development, decrease.

While this is natural, many musculoskeletal changes are from inactivity. Long-term exercise can slow the loss of muscle mass, and weight training can increase muscle mass and strength.


As you get older, your body produces less collagen and elastin, causing your skin to wrinkle and lose elasticity. The dermis (the skin's padding) thins, making skin look transparent. These changes are normal.

But as it turns out, approximately 90 percent of age-related skin problems — including wrinkles and rough, blotchy skin — are actually caused by sun damage, Olson says. Wearing sunscreen on a regular basis and avoiding prolonged sun exposure can help protect your skin from sun damage.


Looking for a Doctor?

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, is a leader in caring for people of all ages, from newborns through older adults.

Just phone (888) 352-RUSH or (888) 352-7874 for help finding the doctor at Rush who's right for you.

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Discover Rush Spring 2009
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